Fr Algy and Brother Douglas are often credited as the founders of the Society of Saint Francis; certainly these two early members of the Society represent the two poles of our charism – order and serving the poor.
Brother Douglas, who earned the name ‘Apostle to the Wayfarers’ died on September 7, 1957. He was a priest and Oxford professor of economics. Thousands of men were thrown out of work in the Great Depression and made homeless and moved from shelter to shelter around the English countryside. Brother Douglas put on a pair of overalls painted with a large cross and joined them for two summers before setting up Hilfield Farm as a community to minister to the wayfarers.
All Franciscans recognise this kind of ministry as typically Franciscan, to be expected of both Brothers and Third Order members. Brother Douglas inspires us to serve the poor where we meet them.
Father Algy’s skills were very different and sometimes overlooked. He had a sound knowledge of the religious life, and he was originally invited to help train SSF novices. Algy had an intuitive understanding of the kind of man who should join the fledgling SSF and a detailed plan for its organisation. In her history of the European Province of SSF, This Poor Sort, Petà Dunstan refers to Algy’s reputation as co-founder of both First Order and the Second Order, the Community of St Clare.
There is no doubt that Fr Algy’s eccentricities, and his reluctance to relinquish all his personal wealth, especially his car, caused friction in the Order as it grew. He was a human being and no claim has been made that he was a saint. However, his gift for organisation continues to shape the First Order and to remind the Third Order that you need structure to stay together.
The Third Order also acknowledges another priest, Jack Winslow, the writer of our Principles, for his role in our founding. His attention to the configuration of the Third Order continues to provide the glue for Tertiaries to live together in loving service.
But on this day, November 23, we thank God for Father Algy SSF and his gift of order to the Society of St Francis, the gift that facilitates our Orders to fulfil our calling to loving service.
Before I start criticising the practice of blessing animals, let me confess that I have blessed animals, and would do so again. In fact for a couple of years, Tom Sutton of Subiaco Parish in Perth invited me, along with other Franciscans and other priests to a great outdoor animal blessing. There is a picture of me blessing a great St Bernard, and it was a delight to make friends with this gentle creature.
This jamboree was stopped only because a certain dog food manufacturer was a sponsor and took advantage of this event. It took it over by emblazoning its name on every object and dog parade and snail race in sight.
Tom rightly believed that such rampant capitalism was at odds with the spirit of animal blessing.
But as a Franciscan I do feel ambivalent about blessing animals. Not that I have any theological problem with asking for God’s blessing on either pets or wild animals. Our blessing simply confirms the reality that God has already blessed creation. See Genesis 1.
Nor do I mind the chaos that can be caused by creatures great and small in a little church with God’s people trying to celebrate the Eucharist with devotion.
My problem, I think, is twofold. Firstly, blessing animals can become a sentimental act. “Isn’t it nice? Isn’t it lovely?” If an animal blessing is organised only to evoke superficial sentiments, then it is a dangerous waste of time. If an animal blessing is organised only to delight children, then it is a diversion from reality.
Secondly, blessing animals can easily turn companion animals into possessions rather than being seen as God’s gifts to us. The attitude that our pets are simply a convenience can easily lead to neglect and abuse , but even before it gets to that stage, this attitude diminishes us, making us consumers of animals’ services, rather than their grateful friends.
What Franciscans can do is to encourage people to think carefully about our relationship with animals. Saint Francis believed that each creature is a Word of God. In our encounter with an animal, St Francis encourages us to allow that animal to disclose its story to us. The animal is not there simply for our unfettered use, but is a fellow-creature put on this earth to share existence with us and to join our praise of the Most High Creator.
Our pets are our companions, not our slaves.
And do we bless the animals that give food, are food for us? Much has been written about the distance between us urban dwellers and the milk and meat that we enjoy. If we bless our pets, then we should equally bless the animals that nurture us. We should be prepared to ask whether the cost of being a meat-eater is too high. Dr Rajendra Pachauri Chair of the IPCC spoke of the positive environmental impact of eating one less meat meal each week.
Wild animals are a blessing, too, although I suspect it’s impossible to catch a blue wren or an Oenpelli python to lay hands on and pronounce a blessing over it!
So my plea as a Franciscan is, if we are to bless animals, then let’s do it with thorough thought and prayer, and not just as a liturgical stunt. But no one would do that, would they?